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Public bodies and a duty of care to young people

The new inquiry into how public institutions handled claims of child abuse is another sign of the changing attitudes to this serious crime.

The scandal around Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris exposed the fact that, in the 1970s and 80s, powerful abusers felt able to offend, confident in the knowledge they would not be caught and that those who complained would not be believed. The Government action announced yesterday is another hopeful signal that those days are gone for good.

The inquiry will not be a full public inquiry but it will be similar to the Hillsborough investigation, with evidence taken mostly in public. In the Commons yesterday, the Home Secretary Theresa May also committed herself to transparency, saying that the inquiry would have access to all the government papers it needs. She also announced that Peter Wanless, the chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, will lead a review into how the Home Office handled historic allegations of child abuse.

With a number of inquiries already being conducted or still active (including Operation Fairbank, which is investigating claims a paedophile ring including senior politicians operated in the 1970s and 80s), some may question the need for another, but it is critical that the public has confidence in the systems to protect children. The reviews announced yesterday will address not only the specific concern that the Home Office failed to act on claims of abuse handed to it by the late MP Geoffrey Dickens, but also the much wider concern that public bodies failed in their obligations and duty of care to young people.

The progress already made on child protection should be acknowledged. In the wake of the Soham murders, child protection legislation was changed to include people who had been the subject of complaints to the police but not prosecuted; the disclosure check system was also tightened.

Partly because of the recent high-profile cases, there has also been a cultural change that has helped victims to feel more able to come forward.

The important task for the inquiry will be to establish what further improvements can be made to ensure the system of child protection is as strong as it can be. The Savile case exposed the fact that hospital staff felt unable to pass on patients' complaints; it has also been suggested some police officers believed they could not pursue claims about paedophiles in government because of the possible consequences for their career. The inquiry must determine whether institutions can do more to encourage staff to raise their suspicions.

What the inquiry must not do, of course, is compromise any criminal investigations into historical cases, but the investigation is as much about the future as it is about the past. We must know where public institutions went wrong but the systems must also be designed to prevent any repeat.

The hardest part will be ensuring that they are immune to the influence that men like Savile and Harris wielded: the influence of power, money and status.

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